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In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many who sought to settle the west took ship, traveling from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky down the great river. Though settlers had been utilizing the Ohio for decades, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the 1804-1806 expedition of Lewis and Clark sparked a full-fledged migration westward. As settlers began to arrive from the east in large numbers, settlements sprung up all along the Ohio. While this lead to inevitable conflict with native tribes, it also presented the settlers with the problem of how to transport their families and belongings to their new homes. Overland travel was extremely slow and hazardous in this undeveloped country; therefore many settlers turned their eyes to the broad Ohio and the promise of speed and ease of travel that it offered.
As early as 1805 or 1806, adventurous pioneers, including some with their families, began settling on the location of present-day Madison.footnote 1 Some, more hardy or foolhardy than others, trudged dozens or even hundreds of miles along narrow paths carved through the forest by natives, but the vast majority chose to simply float down the Ohio. In canoes, flatboats, and keelboats, colonists ventured further and further west, eventually reaching the Mississippi River and its mouth at New Orleans, that great export center of the south. In this way, the Ohio River valley was permanently settled and before long its rich farmlands and thriving centers of industry proved to be a great asset to the young, struggling nation.
Early Madison Settlers
Among the early explorers and settlers of the site of present-day Madison was John Vawter, an enterprising man who would become Madison’s first justice of the peace as well as Jefferson County’s first sheriff. His father, Jesse Vawter, “with six or eight other Kentuckians from Franklin and Scott Counties, visited what was then called the New Purchase at a very early date [December, 1805]. A part journeyed by land and a part by water. The land party crossed the Ohio River at Port William [present-day Carrollton]; the others descended the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers in a pirogue to a point opposite Milton. The pirogue answered the double purpose of carrying forward the provisions of the company and enabling the men to pass from one bank to another, swimming their horses along the side.”
The elder Vawter’s experience was typical of most settlers of the day and as he returned home to Kentucky to prepare his family for the move, 24-year-old John decided to inspect the land for himself. Like his father, he traveled in a pirogue. “My second visit to Indiana was in May, 1806. I came in a pirogue and landed a little above the stone mill opposite Milton, visited the highlands east and west of Crooked Creek, continued at my father’s…to assist him in getting his corn planted, [and then] returned in the same craft with my mother and other relatives to Frankfort, Kentucky.”